Out in the wilderness
The wilderness of Judea is a stark and barren place, a lunar landscape of rolling rocky escarpments, a still and silent place. We visited it in silence on a recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Like the Sea of Galilee, it is a place that stands out because it remains much as it was when Jesus looked out on it. And yet for all its its splendid isolation, as soon as the coach pulled up Bedouin traders appeared from nowhere with yamukas, belts and other items, and children with faces like dustbin lids, begged for ‘carameli, carameli’. All I had to give were extra strong mints and when I did, one child said, ‘giss another one!’
The wilderness stands in contrast to the relaxing lushness of Galilee and the commotion of Jerusalem. Jesus must surely have gone there in the winter, for no one would survive for long in this unforgiving land in the heat of summer without water.
If you wanted to be alone you couldn’t choose a better place. It is a discomfiting place, a place where you are cut down to size, where you are confronted with yourself, where there is nowhere to hide.
The wilderness is not far from the Baptism Site, which was formerly in a militarized zone, but has now been reopened to the public. The River Jordan is a shallow stream at this point, you could easily wade across were it not for the soldiers concealed in the rushes. After his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness to work out what sort of Messiah he is going to be; to ask himself what it means to be the beloved Son of God. Jesus has to face up to who he is.
The baptism and temptation concludes the hidden years of Jesus, the years of his teenage and twenties in Nazareth. From here on, his life is to be totally public. His time is no longer his own; any moment of prayer will be precious.
Any time we withdraw and cut ourselves off from the outside in prayer, can be like entering the stillness of the wilderness. Cardinal Basil Hume said that we need to be at ease with ourselves alone in the desert if we are to be comfortable with others in the market place.
Honesty is a vital ingredient of prayer, we cannot pray to God with pretence. We have to recognize our feelings if we are to have any control over them. So, these forty days of Lent are a time for us to go out into the wilderness, to strip away some of the false comforts, those unreliable crutches of life that we rely upon.
What temptations assail us? What leads us into sin? What behaviour and words mar the divine image in us? We may well be tempted by what is attractive, by what is easy, but Jesus says that wide is the road to perdition, but narrow is the path that leads to eternal life.
Dare we ask ourselves if we are living the lives we want to live, or do we aspire to something better? It does not matter how old young or old we are, Christ offers infinite possibilities for change and improvement, if we keep trying to emulate him.
From the hilltops of the wilderness, you look down to a winding road deep below, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I had spoken of it hundreds of times in the 23rd Psalm, but I never realized it was a real place. It is the road that the man was taking when he was robbed in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Bandits could see anyone making their way along the road, and they were easy pickings. This knowledge brings extra resonance to the psalm, ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The psalmist speaks of utter confidence in God, in the face of a real threat. That line has no doubt been used in times of fear by countless people.
Scripture brings security. Jesus himself uses scripture to ward off the devil three times. In our Lent Groups we are looking at how we make prayer the foundation of our lives, and how scripture can strengthen us and build up our spiritual defences.
If scripture is deeply grounded in our soul, and prayer firmly established in our lives then we can better ward off temptation and sin, and keep ourselves on the right path, the way that leads to life.